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The Justification of Violence and Terrorism?

Shohret Hoshur

Radio Free Asia Uyghur service broadcaster Shohret Hoshur, gold medal winner at the 2012 New York Festivals radio awards in the category of best coverage of a breaking news story.

Today, I came across an article in Asia Times titled “Tiananmen Crash Linked to Xinjiang Mosque Raid” by Shohret Hoshur, originally published via Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur Service.  In the article Hoshur appears to justify violence and terrorism committed last week by presenting what must appear to him to be legitimate motivations for plowing a car into the guardrails in Tiananmen Square (which resulted in an explosion) last week .

For Hoshur, this event was less about terrorism – as the Chinese government asserts – and more about the desperate acts of another politically disenchanted Uighur.  While Hoshur is careful to say this is not organized violence (this would hurt the cause for Uighur independence), he also elevated it from mere spiteful acts of pitiful personal grievance (this would be uninteresting) to a symbolic peoples’ revolt (this is the happy, sweet medium).

Hoshur’s article is copied below:

In ethnic Muslim Uyghur who plowed his car into a crowded part of Tiananmen Square last week in what the Chinese authorities called a deadly terrorist act may have been angered by a police raid on a mosque in the troubled Xinjiang region, a former official from his home village said Wednesday.

Usmen Hesen, who was killed in the crash together with his wife and mother who were also in the vehicle, had publicly vowed to avenge the police raid on the mosque in his Yengi Aymaq village in Xinjiang’s Akto county, former village chief Hamut Turdi said.

“I think it is highly possible that Usmen Hesen did this to take revenge for our villagers,” Turdi told RFA’s Uyghur Service.

He said that Hesen, aged 33, was furious when Chinese police entered the Pilal mosque compound and tore down the courtyard, which the authorities had termed as an illegal extension of the prayer house built on funds collected from the village community.

According to Turdi, Hesen had donated a significant portion of the donated funds.

“This is one reason that he might have carried out the Tiananmen attack,” which had also left two tourists dead and injured dozens at the popular site and symbolic heart of the Chinese state, Turdi said

He pointed out that the Pilal mosque raid took place exactly a year before the crash in Tiananmen Square on Oct. 28—“which also leads me to believe this” motive behind the alleged attack.

The Yengi Aymaq village is situated in Ujme town under the jurisdiction of the Kizilsu Kirghiz Autonomous Prefecture in Xinjiang, home to the mostly Muslim Uyghurs who say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination and oppressive religious controls under Beijing’s policies.

Turdi, 55, who had worked as Yengi Aymaq village chief for 22 years before he was ousted by authorities over the Pilal mosque incident, recollected Hesen making an emotional speech soon after some 100 police officers surrounded the mosque as workers demolished the courtyard.

Hesen made the speech as he told the mosque community to stand down after they argued with the armed police.

“At that time, Usmen Hesen jumped in and persuaded the community to disperse by saying, ‘Today they have won and we have lost because they are carrying guns and we have nothing—but don’t worry, one day we will do something ourselves’,” Turdi said.

“As Usmen Hesen finished his emotional speech, [his mother] Kuwanhan Reyim went to him crying, and hugged and kissed his forehead because of her pride in him. The crowd was also moved to tears and retreated.”

When the mosque community backed down, the demolition team bulldozed the mosque’s courtyard and destroyed part of the walls, Turdi said, adding that they also removed 12 carpets from the mosque and disconnected the building’s water supply and heating system.

Hesen left Yengi Aymaq village the next day and never returned, he said.

Tiananmen incident

The Chinese authorities have blamed the little-known East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) militant group for the Tiananmen raid. Many Uygurs refer to Xinjiang, which borders Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the former Soviet Central Asian republics, as East Turkestan.

Last week, a source who claims to know Hesen’s family, suggested that he may have been on a deadly revenge attack after losing a family member during the 2009 bloody riots between Han Chinese and Uyghurs in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi.

Another source—Hesen’s school classmate—claimed his younger brother had died in a mysterious traffic accident several years ago that had been blamed on the majority Han Chinese or the Chinese authorities.

Thousands of Uyghurs had gone missing since they were arrested in large sweep operations following the Urumqi riots, Uyghur groups have claimed.

Pilal mosque

Turdi said Hesen’s village community had collected around 200,000 yuan (U.S. $32,800) over three years to build the Pilal mosque and successfully applied for a permit to construct it in 2011.

After the mosque was built in mid-2012, he said, the community raised another 30,000 yuan (U.S. $4,900) in August that year to lay a concrete floor in the courtyard and build a wall around it to keep the area clean for performing burial rituals.

But when the courtyard project was completed, local authorities ordered it torn down because the mosque community had not applied for a new permit to build it.

Xinjiang has seen a string of violent incidents in recent years as Beijing tightens security measures and extends house-to-house raids targeting Uyghur families.

I decided to write about this article in part because unlike the typical article one finds in the Western press based on innuendos and what far-away experts speculates, this article is actually based on  a presumptive interview with a real person on the ground – in this case a Hamut Turdi, recently ousted village chief of Yengi Aymaq village.  Rarely do we read of actual voices on the ground.  And even though that voice may be filtered – even distorted – by Hoshur, it is still useful to hear such voices, in my opinion.

For this post, I will take the interview at face-value, although we must make clear that, as even Turdi made clear throughout the interview, no one knows exactly what personally motivated Hesen to commit his acts.  Hesen did not leave any notes.  And it does not look like Hesen told anyone, either.

My first reaction upon reading this article is that even if Hesen committed his act to avenge for the tearing down of the mosque: how trite and dumb can this get? The world is not short of dangerous and deranged people who commit civil violence in the name of vigilante justice.  One similar person may be Timonthy McVeigh, a U.S. veteran who independently carried out bombings against the U.S. government for the federal government’s handling of the Waco Siege, which ended in the deaths of 76 people exactly two years prior to the bombing, as well as for the Ruby Ridge incident in 1992. 1.  But even here, at least McVeigh fought for “Libertarian values” to which many people across all walks of life relate.

What did Hesen stand for?  Hoshur suggested Hesen was fighting for the mosque … or at least the mosque community.   But I highly doubt the government tore down part of the buildings for religious or cultural reasons. I highly doubt this is a case of government vs. the mosque – or the mosque community.  As the article mentioned, the government had already granted a permit to built the mosque in 2011.  The government does not have a problem with the mosque.  (The Chinese government actually funds many projects restoring historical as well as building new mosques and temples throughout China.) It was the later additions – the ones done without permit – with which the government had a problem.

In my view, Hesen was merely avenging for his lost donations – his chance for private glory.  When the government tore down sections of the mosque that were built without proper permit, so came down, for Hesen, the social prestige and public recognition he had come to expect in making the donations.

The article did not go into why the government felt it necessary to tear down the sections built, and I think it was irresponsible not to, especially since the article strongly suggested that Hesen’s alleged gripes were justified.  In China as in everywhere else, one of the duties of governing is ensuring new buildings are built up to code to ensure safety.  The permit process is the main gatekeeper aimed at ensuring buildings are built safely.  Permits – as broader part of urban planning – work to ensure the buildings are not obstructive to the surrounding community (all members of the community, not just a particular sect), providing a context to ensure relevant environmental, social, cultural, and other concerns are all properly addressed.

Rather than reflecting on the shortcuts and mistakes that may have been made in extending part of a mosque without permit, putting would-be worshipers and the broader public potentially at risk, Hesen blamed the government.  Rather than using his standing in the community, which he must have earned in making such sizable donations, to give example of how to overcome adversities, Hesen made a politically inciteful speech razing the government for oppression and vowed violent reprisal.

In the article, besides giving the mosque theory for the Tiananman car crash incident, Hoshur also offered several other theories as motivation for Hesen’s violence.  An unnamed source who claimed to know Hesen’s family  presumptively told Hoshur that Hesen was after the Chinese government and/or Han Chinese people 2 after losing a family member during the 2009 bloody riots. Another unnamed source – this time a former classmate of Hesen – allegedly told Hoshur that Hesen was seeking revenge against the Chinese government and/or Han Chinese people to avenge for a younger brother that he  purportedly lost years ago in a mysterious traffic accident.

Taking these other assertions at face value, one can see how dangerous and deranged a person such as Hesen is.  Riots are by definition violent.  That is why the Chinese government take incitations so seriously.  If you are sympathetic to those who take vengence against a government or a group of people, I invite you to think more critically.

In both the Ürümqi riots riots of 2009 and the Lhasa riots of 2008, most of the deaths involved “Han Chinese.”  If the Han Chinese also go by Hesen’s attitude, thousands more people will be slaughtered as they take reprisal, and more senseless acts of public violence will reverberate throughout China.  Vengeance will breed more vengeance, expanding in ever more violent, geometric and exponential fashion.  This is not something any sane Chinese would court – not if you are part of the “majority” and definitely not if you are in the “minority.”  This is something the Chinese government and Chinese people fight hard against, but something that some apparently – for political purposes – would rather incite, as Hoshur and others may have by focusing narrowly on the grievances without broader context.

As incredible as the mosque and riot theories go as potential justification for Hesen to commit the atrocious acts last week, it is the traffic accident theory really blew my mind.

An unfortunate thing in the world is that, well, accidents do occur.  Accidents occur everywhere in the world: in China, in Europe, in the U.S. And often, one cannot find any answers for the pains one suffers.  Hesen may want to blame the Chinese government or Han Chinese for the death of his brother, but without more, he might as well blame reality … or God … or Mother Nature … that rock by the street …  And even then, it still wouldn’t fix a thing. Sometimes, accidents happen.

It is really unfortunate how often people commit public violence to settle personal grievances (see e.g. this article listing several bombings in China where a surprisingly many appear to have been attempted out of personal grievances; or this article noting that personal grievances with the police as a possible cause of the killings in June in Shanshan, or this article noting that “Tiananmen Square is a frequent magnet for protesters and self-immolators[, b]ut most plots are foiled far from the square—such as a 2009 incident in which three people set themselves on fire in a car at the Wangfujing pedestrian mall, reportedly over personal grievances with the government.”).  But it is even more despicable, irresponsible, and dangerous to justify or condone them. Whether Hesen’s act constituted an arbitrary act of a deranged person, spurred perhaps to action by dangerous ideologies of radicalism, or a concerted act planned by an organization, his acts last week must be condemned.  

In last week’s violence, scores were injured, including eight killed.  Of those who died: three were tourists from the Philippines, one was a tourist from Japan, and one a tourist from GuangDong province.  Of course, there were also the three – Hesen, his wife and mother – in that fateful jeep.

And all this for what?  Freedom to build structures without government oversight?  Act to avenge for the personal loss of 30,000 yuan (U.S. $4,900)?

On the ground: are the villagers better off because of Hesen’s acts?  Is the mosque better off?  Is the mosque community better off?

Notes:

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timothy_McVeigh
  2. As I have noted several times in this blog, the term “han chinese” is really a great misnomer.  There is no such thing as “han etchnicity” or “ethnic chinese.”  We might call the Chinese culture Han culture, as it can be traced to the people of the Han some time ago.  But that doesn’t make Chinese culture Han per se.  Many peoples and cultures and traditions have contributed to what is Chinese today.  Just as the Amazon River is made of the (major) tributaries of the MarañónJapurá/CaquetáRio Negro/GuainíaPutumayoUcayaliPurúsMadeiraXinguTocantins rivers – each of which has still more tributaries, so is the Chinese culture created from the contributions of many cultures, only one of which is traced by to the original Han people.  Conversely, many of what we consider Chinese today is but a version of the Chinese mosaic.  At different times in China’s history, different traditions, thoughts, have been emphasized, making up other versions of the Chinese mosaic.  Think Beijing Opera.  Is that fundamentally Chinese?  Well, yes.  It’s especially popular in the Qing dynasty. But there are other opera traditions …  That’s doesn’t make Beijing Opera the essence of Chinese music… only a tapestry in a mosaic that is constantly changing, mingling, adapting, changing.
  1. ersim
    November 7th, 2013 at 15:48 | #1

    It’s interesting to notice in Hoshur’s article a dangerous thin line between “ethnic nationalism” and Islamist rhetoric when it comes to Hesen’s death or “martyrdom”.

  2. N.M.Cheung
    November 7th, 2013 at 16:13 | #2

    I would disagree that this is a case of personal grievance gone extreme. I would compare this to the 9/11 attack although in much a smaller scale. That it’s a fanatical Islamic reaction to modernity. I would like to make the following points:

    1. OBL and 9/11 terrorists were angered by U.S. troops stationed in Saudi Arabia, they consider it’s a profanity to their religion. Similarly Hesen was angered by the demolition of part of mosque he considered holy.

    2. A sense of martyrdom in both cases. They consider it’s heroic to die for their religion.

    3. Both the mother and wife may have voluntarily decide to join him in death, yet still I suspect he as the male make the decision for them, as he can surely decide against them joining in if he wished. In this regard women as second class in Islam is undisputable.

    4. I think China has to re-evaluate her nationality policy, not as Mr. Hoshur wishes, but in the other direction to push modernization in those areas faster, on education, science, and culture. For surely respect religious freedom doesn’t mean forbearance to medieval values and ignorance. Does respect for Koran mean not teaching evolution or push for equality for women?

  3. Charles Liu
    November 8th, 2013 at 12:41 | #3

    I wonder if Mr. Hoshur would call the Boston Marathon bombing terrorism, or it too, is excusable with some forced rationalization?

  4. ho hon
    November 9th, 2013 at 22:09 | #4

    Shall we call it an “ideological warfare”? If it is too old-fashioned and flavored cold-war, how about “semantic warfare”? This infosphere is now full of falsity and it is suffocating.

  5. Black Pheonix
    November 11th, 2013 at 07:47 | #5

    @Charles Liu

    Naturally, since US had Oklahoma bombing, Seattle Protests, LA riot, Vietnam Era Immolation, etc., then every thing falls under “protest” according to Mr. Hoshur’s logic.

    Consequently, 9/11 was also just a protest by desperate people.

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